The Pharisees Ask Jesus for a Sign: A Short Study in Mark, Q, and the Synoptics

The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side. (Mark 8:11-13, NIV)

Thus spoke Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, which is probably the earliest original extant writing about Jesus’ life that I know of. He speaks very similar words in the other two Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke–but with some interesting twists.

Let’s see where those twists take us…

Equivalent Passages in Matthew 12, Matthew 16, and Luke 11

First, the author of Matthew repeats much of Mark’s wording in its equivalent passage (with Mark’s wording below in bold type):

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it… (Matthew 12:38-39)

This is pretty similar to Mark, with a few minor tweaks (“teachers of the law”, “Teacher”, “wicked and adulterous”). Indeed, Luke has Jesus saying much the same thing (with Mark’s wording in bold type):

Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. (Luke 11:16)

The “Pharisees” have disappeared from Luke’s account–becoming “others”–but where’s the rest of the passage? Ah! It picks up again 13 verses later (with Mark’s wording below in bold type):

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it… (Luke 11:29a)

Here there are “crowds” (which isn’t surprising), and Luke agrees with Matthew (but not with Mark) in calling Jesus’ generation “wicked” (although Luke doesn’t add “adulterous”).

But wait! Matthew repeats this passage again a few chapters later (with Mark’s wording below in bold type):

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. (Matthew 16:1)

This time, though, there are now also “Saducees”. Fair enough.

Additions in Matthew 16 and Luke 12 (NOT in Mark’s version)

Then, in the next few verses, the writer of Matthew adds some flair that’s not found in Mark’s (earlier and probably original) account (with Mark’s wording in bold type):

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (Matthew 16:2-4)

Where did this flair come from? The “weather” analogy here is NOT found in Mark…but it IS found in Luke (surprisingly, NOT in the equivalent passage, but rather in the next chapter):

He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? (Luke 12:54-56)

Interestingly, although this passage apparently corresponds to Matthew 16:2-3 above, its wording is quite different. (Why? I don’t know.) The only overlap between the two passages is “When…, you say, ‘It…and…You know how to interpret the appearance of the…sky…you…not…interpret…time…”

(Note Luke’s addition of the word “Hypocrites!” here.)

Also interestingly, in both Matthew 12 AND Luke 11, Jesus continues speaking after saying, “none will be given it” (in BOTH accounts). This is the same place where the quotation in Mark ENDS–right before “he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.”

The “Sign of Jonah” in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 (but NOT in Mark)

In Matthew 16 (remember, there are TWO versions of this passage in Matthew), Jesus adds, “except the sign of Jonah”–right before “Jesus then left them and went away.” He does not explain what this means before the Matthew 16 passage ends.

What, then, IS the “sign of Jonah”? Both Matthew 12 and Luke 11 explain, picking up after “none will be given it”:

…except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth*. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:40b-42)

…except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here. (Luke 11:29b-32)

(In these two passages, I italicized the wording that’s identical in both passages and put the variant wording in bold type. None of this material is found in Mark.)

Jesus’ words in the first sentence (after “For as Jonah was”) are QUITE different in these two passages, although both obviously refer to the Ninevite prophet Jonah from the Old Testament. Here’s what that first sentence says in BOTH passages after removing the variation*:

“For as Jonah was, so will the Son of Man be.”

To me, this sounds exactly like the sort of “drop-the-mic” statement that Jesus often said (especially in the Gospel of Mark) before turning away and leaving a dumbfounded audience to argue among themselves. But what does all this mean?

A Second Source for the Authors of Matthew and Luke?

We began this study with Mark’s simple account of a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees: they asked Jesus a provocative question, and Jesus replied–and then “left them”).

The end. Right?

No, wait! In Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the same interaction, we see three apparent additions to the story:

  • a criticism of the Pharisees’ (in Matthew) or the crowd’s (in Luke) inability to “interpret” the “present [or “signs of the”] time[s]”;
  • a reference to the “Sign of Jonah” (in three passages); and
  • its explanation (in two of the three).

Where did these apparent additions to Mark’s passage, as perhaps re-told in both Matthew and Luke, come from–and why do they differ?

Assuming that

  • the Gospel of Mark was written before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and
  • the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels independently of each other,

we can form some conclusions based on comparisons of these (and, indeed, many other) similar passages found in any two or more of the three Synoptic Gospels–that is,

a) in both Matthew and Mark;
b) in both Matthew and Luke;
c) in both Mark and Luke; or
d) in all three.

For choices a and c, it’s reasonable to conclude that the authors of Matthew and Luke were writing their respective Gospels with the Gospel of Mark as a source–open on the table in front of them, so to speak. Indeed, some 97% of the verses found in Mark are reproduced in Matthew or Luke, usually verbatim (as we’ve seen here).

This conclusion would also account for option d. But what about option b, where the authors of Matthew and Luke give very similar accounts NOT found in Mark–especially considering that there’s often variance between THESE accounts, as we’ve seen here?

Examples of this type of “variant similarity” include the additions mentioned above, i.e. the “weather” analogy and the “Sign of Jonah” (and its two very similar, but not identical, explanations). Logically, these examples point to the existence of a second source of accounts of Jesus’ life.

This second source apparently no longer exists.

And now we arrive at a sentence I wrote very early on in this study, but which I’ve been pushing ever farther downward as the essay developed. I’ll just leave it here as a sort of conclusion:

I’d like to use those twists to demonstrate the previous existence of Sayings Gospel Q (an equally early writing about Jesus that is no longer extant, but much of which is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke).

********

* Note: Supporting my suggestion that the original saying in Matthew 12:41/Luke 11:30 above might have been the “drop-the-mic” version without further explanation, Jesus (having died on Friday evening and risen on Sunday morning) did not in fact spend “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” like Jonah did inside the “huge fish”–but rather rose again “on the third day.” (See Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:64; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7; 24:21; 24:46.)

Interestingly, there’s no such “on the third day” statement in the Gospel of Mark, leaving the impression that this phrase came to us, through both Matthew and Luke, by way of the now-lost Sayings Gospel Q.

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